Mal Sharpe and the “Big Money in Jazz” band
Mal Sharpe moved to another neighborhood on March 10, 2020. He refuses to go away, so it is both an obligation and a privilege to honor him here. His official obituary depicts him as a comedian:
Mal Sharpe, ‘The Man on the Street’ radio gag man, dies at 83
That’s one way to see Mal, but between 2011 and 2014, I knew him well as the leader of a band of idiosyncratic individualists, playing traditional jazz and standards, and as a friend. I brought my camera and videoed him and his band, “Big Money in Jazz,” at the No Name in Sausalito, at the Savoy Tivoli and Fior d’Italia in San Francisco, at an outdoor concert in North Beach, and once in Armando’s in Martinez. You can find my videos on YouTube, of course.
Even though I celebrate Mal as musician and friend, this demands to be included, with all respect to Larry Scala, who told Mal the joke and was never credited:
I checked my email files and found that I first met him through my friend Jeff Hamilton in 2011: I’d written to Mal for permission to video his gig at Armando’s, and he was very gracious, telling me that he had seen my blog many times. Later, I came to his regular gigs, chatted with him, and took pleasure in the band. He was physically large — tall and broad-shouldered, even though he slumped down in his chair while playing — well dressed in an intentionally casual way.
In those years I was commuting-for-romance from New York, and although I loved being in California, I missed the banquet of music at home. I was sustained by Clint Baker’s Cafe Borrone All-Stars and the occasional swing dance gig, but initially found driving to and parking in San Francisco terrifying. Going to Sausalito was easier — I clearly recall parking my car on Bridgeway and walking past a vertical bank of nasturtiums, which I ate liberally, much to the horror of my companion: I compromised by eating only those above dog-height. I digress, of course.
The No Name Bar in Sausalito was quite awful, and since I had not been a bar-goer in my youth, I recoiled from its most remarkable features: the broken toilet in the men’s room, the bill of fare that was microwaved popcorn in paper bags, local beer, ordinary spirits, an odd clientele, Nancy, behind the bar, gracious in a rough-hewn way, the band assembled on a narrow stand parallel to the bar. I remember coming outside after the gig and feeling that the world was strange because it was so clean and bright.
I never knew in advance who was going to be on the stand with Mal — sometimes superb players, sometimes those who had once been superb, and some others — but the music was always interesting, if only because it was precarious: would X know the chords to the bridge? would Y accelerate his usual glacial pace to get to the end of the chorus when everyone else did? And there was always Mal, who had his routines, but delivered them with that combination of “I know this by heart” and “I just made this up” that I found charming. Hearing and watching him do something as mundane as gently hector the crowd to put tips in the jar was worth the drive.
Mal also had regular improvisations. One of them was that he would go to a local thrift store (was it in Berkeley or in Oakland?) and buy nearly-useless trinkets — little plastic toys or medical items of no value but much strangeness — and set up mock-contests whose winners would receive some bizarre prize. I don’t think I am making this up, but once it was the empty case in which one could carry an enema bag. The takers were few.
Here is Mal’s New-England based improvisation with which he closed the afternoon’s music:
He played trombone and sang. As a singer he could be marvelously affecting, and one of the delights of the band was that it was not a stereotypical Bourbon Street band. If they played the SAINTS, I don’t recall. And — in the fashion of the great postwar ensembles of Boston (where Mal had grown up (he’d been to George Wein’s Mahogany Hall) and New York, where I had, the band explored standards. You were much more likely to hear PENNIES FROM HEAVEN than BOURBON STREET PARADE, although they did perform ICE CREAM and Mal liked women singers who favored Billie and Ella, so the band had a less-raucous air to it. Here’s an example I found moving at the time and still do:
That’s classic Mal — singing with sly tenderness, but also with new lyrics he probably made up on the drive from Berkeley to the gig.
Mal and I bonded because he saw that I was going to use the blog and camera to celebrate him — not embarrass him — and he once said to me, after a post, “Michael, you made us sound so good!” which pleased me. He knew he was an amateur trombonist, and he said as much, but he stayed within his limitations and thus did no harm.
We also drifted into a sideways friendship over delicatessen sandwiches at Saul’s, and talked of our mutual hero Vic Dickenson. I gave him copies of recordings I’d made of Vic, and sometimes our phone conversation would start with his commenting about what Vic had done on the second chorus of SONNY BOY on the CDs I’d made for him. When I visited him at home once or twice, he invited me into his den, which had photographs of his and my heroes on the wall, a barber’s chair that he sat in to practice, and other oddments.
I emailed him often, mostly propelled by my finding a new picture or video that I knew he would like, and his brief responses had a telling comical snap. Face to face, Mal and I spoke of recordings we were listening to; I brought him jazz gossip from New York and he talked about chance meetings with great people and odd ones, taking perhaps more delight in the latter than the other.
As noted in the newspaper obituary, he was a great on-the-spot improviser of nearly-surreal sketch comedies, and once that I recall I felt (years after the fact) that I had become a character in a Sharpe sketch. We both knew someone on the New York scene — a fan, amateur musician, and schnorrer (Mal loved Yiddish) who was always on the lookout for some apparently-altruistic scheme that would benefit no one but himself. He came into the conversation and Mal and I took turns enthusiastically narrating his small-time thieveries. The next time we met I brought him up with vengeful glee and told of his latest feats while Mal sat silent, listening. When I ran out of energy, Mal looked at me after a long pause and said that he had decided to speak of this person no more, that it was not what he should be doing, and so on. At the time, I felt as if Mal had let me walk blindfolded into a hole he had just dug, and said, “Hey, you could have stopped me at the start of blackening this person’s character,” and I don’t recall what he said. Years later I understood that he had let me go on for the pleasure of the punchline, and I appreciated it as much as I could.
I am not sure if I discerned it or Mal himself told me, but he was a classic paradox — a shy man who sought the limelight as long as he could control it. I think he needed to be onstage, to make people laugh and applaud, but (with the tuna or turkey sandwich he had Nancy get for him) he needed even more to drive home in silence, then be at home with no one bothering him. Later on he told me that it wasn’t just shyness, it was anxiety, and I felt very sorrowful, but it also helped me understand him better: as if someone afraid of drowning forced himself to take swimming lessons, even though they scared him terribly and he never got any better.
When I came back to New York in January 2015, I was happy to be home but I missed Mal greatly, and I would pick up the phone and call him. I think the last time we spoke was in 2017, and I sensed that he had retreated from the world more than a little. He stopped responding to emails as well. But that is too sad a note to end my recollections on.
How could you not love a man whose email signature (edited by me) was . . . .
Host of KCSM’s Back on Basin Street 91.1
Man On The Street Productions & Big Money in Jazz
Home phone xxx xxx xxxx cell xxx xxx xxxx
Teenage Home phone in Newton, Ma. Bi-4-9509 (If my mother answers, hang up)
DON’T LOOK AT THE TROMBONES, IT ONLY ENCOURAGES THEM—RICHARD STRAUSS
and then there’s this song and performance. Larry told me today, as we spoke of Mal, that it was Mal’s opening song for gigs:
I think Mal would be embarrassed by having more than fifteen hundred words written about him, but when he could be by himself in his barber chair, he would be secretly pleased. Perhaps he would have emailed me to say he never ate turkey.
My condolences to Sandra and Jennifer Sharpe. And my gratitude to Mal for letting me be one of the band in my own way
May your happiness increase!